Apr 4, 2018

A (Significant) Change of Pace: Moving From Pennsylvania to Maryland

Spoiler: There will be many more ocean sunrise photos from now on.
I realize I've been "off the grid" with this blog for almost three months now: My last post was on Jan. 17. Even for a procrastinator like myself, this is a lengthy delay.

This time, however, I had legitimate reasons.

Back in late February, I accepted a new job in Washington, D.C. Due to the career change, I also relocated to Maryland. The job and the move have been the two most significant life changes to happen to me since I started working at the Altoona Mirror back in July 2013. Well, that and my wedding in October.

Love you, dear!
So, from mid-February until now, Cassidy and I had to pack up everything, find a new place to live, relocate, unpack everything in the new apartment and get settled in a different, unfamiliar town. One month after moving to Maryland, I'm still trying to find free time in my day. The changes have been exhilarating but stressful at the same time. My daily schedule looks something like this:
  • Wake up at 6:15 a.m.
  • Start work remotely at 7:15 a.m.
  • Get on the train about 9:30 a.m. (likely forgot to eat breakfast).
  • Commute for about 35 minutes.
  • Start work about 10 a.m. (remember that I forgot to eat breakfast).
  • Take a break where I eat breakfast and lunch at the same time.
  • Work until 5:30 or 6 p.m.
  • Get back on the train to return home.
  • Another 35-minute commute.
  • Get home about 6:30 or 7 p.m.
  • Eat dinner about 7:30 p.m.
  • Rest of the night consists of chores until about 9 or 10 p.m.
  • Fall asleep (hopefully) about 10:30 p.m.
  • Repeat.
Pictured: How I feel by the end of the day.
My schedule is so packed that I often forget to pencil in time to do fun things -- such as working on this blog. But you might be wondering, "If he's living in Maryland, how is he going to continue a blog about Pennsylvania?"

That's a fair question, and it's one I've been pondering for a few weeks. The short answer is this: I'm not sure, but I will continue to write (time permitting) what I can until I run out of material.

Living in Maryland will limit my chances to travel around Pennsylvania, but I will return to the Keystone State on occasion. Likewise, I have a backlog containing topics I haven't written about yet. Now that I'm more settled in, I'm finding a bit more free time than I did about a month ago, so I hope that means more opportunities for me to write.

But another thought has been running through my head: Should I start a similar blog about D.C. and Maryland?

I don't think I would have ever written about pandas in Pennsylvania.
At this time, I'm not pursuing that project -- at least until I venture to more places to write about.

I've had a phenomenal time traveling across Pennsylvania, seeing what it has to offer and writing about it. I started the blog as a way to chronicle what was going on in my life while informing my readers about what they could find in Pa. There's still so much I wanted to see but couldn't find the time.

I want to say that I'm thankful to everyone who has been keeping up with Manifest Destiny (PA) over the years. I know I don't post as often as some other travel blogs, but I always made sure to write the best content possible. I wanted each post to read like a chapter in a book. I hope my readers learned something interesting that made them want to go out and pursue new opportunities themselves. I've received much positive feedback about this blog over time, and that alone made it worth continuing.

I'm not certain what the future holds, but I know the past has been wonderful. I'm blessed to have experienced what I did, and I hope you follow my example and embrace some wanderlust for yourself.

Jan 17, 2018

Mount Nittany

Mount Nittany as seen from the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park.
Many college students have a bucket list of places they want to see or activities they want to complete around campus before graduation. During my time at Penn State, I heard about a couple of the items on my peers' lists. Some of them included:
  • Attending a Penn State football game
  • Getting ice cream at the Berkey Creamery
  • Taking a picture at the Nittany Lion statue near Rec Hall
  • Eating Grilled Stickies at Ye Olde College Diner
  • Attending/participating in THON, etc.
You can Google "Penn State bucket list" and find numerous compilations featuring dozens of goals for students.

One other item on many Penn Staters' lists is "hike Mount Nittany." Now, the other goals I mentioned are as simple as showing up somewhere, eating something or snapping a picture. That doesn't mean those accomplishments aren't worthwhile; they make for fantastic memories. Heck, eating and photography are two of my favorite hobbies.

Eating and photography at the same time -- priceless.
"Hiking Mount Nittany" is one of the goals many people have on their bucket lists, but few of them go through with it. My best guess is that, when you spend half of your college life either studying or drinking (or both at once), the last thought to come to mind is, "Hey, let's spend a few hours straining ourselves by walking around a mountain today." Trust me, I've been there. I think that's a shame, though, because hiking Mount Nittany is one of the most-rewarding accomplishments you can experience as a Penn State student ... or a graduate ... or a non-Penn Stater, for that matter.

Not everyone makes the climb, but there are still hundreds -- if not thousands -- who do each year. I've hiked Mount Nittany several times and have seen a dozen or more people walking the trails at any given moment -- and even more during the semester. A dozen or more people might not sound like a significant number, but I've hiked many other mountains where I was the only person there all day.

In order for a mountain to draw a considerable crowd, it must provide scenic views, adequate trails, and/or a sense of pride/accomplishment to justify the exertion of climbing it. I believe Mount Nittany features all of these characteristics, and those are the reasons why people have made the trip up it for several decades and continue to do so this day.

Let's go take a look around.

Scenic views


In my opinion, the main reason Mount Nittany attracts so many hikers is because of its scenic overlooks. The mountain features seven of them, all of which are named:
  • Mike Lynch
  • Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School
  • Little Flat
  • Penns Valley
  • Tom Smyth
  • Nittany Mall
  • Northwest 
The overlooks are listed on the official map of Mount Nittany, so you can keep track of which one you're at as you're hiking. If you visit all seven, you will essentially observe the entire landscape surrounding the mountain. Mount Nittany provides some of the most-stunning views in central Pennsylvania, and other than the strenuous climb at the beginning of the hike, these overlooks can be reached with minimal effort.

I have been to all seven overlooks. Because of that, I will provide details about each one in case you're wondering if it's worth taking the time to visit all of them. I recommend that you do, but everyone has limits. Below is a picture of the Mount Nittany map that shows the trail system and the locations of the overlooks.

Image courtesy of the Mount Nittany Conservancy
I'll be going in chronological order with the map, so I'm starting at Point 1 and going counterclockwise to Point 11. This is similar to the route I take when I hike Mount Nittany.

To download a PDF version of the Mount Nittany trail map and brochure, click here.

Mike Lynch Overlook (Elevation: 1,940 feet)

 


The Mike Lynch Overlook is the first overlook you will visit if you hike the trail system counterclockwise. What's ironic is it's the hardest overlook to reach, but it's also the most popular. That's because the Mike Lynch Overlook offers an aerial view of a large portion of the Penn State University Park campus, including a bird's-eye view of two of PSU's most-iconic structures: Beaver Stadium and the Bryce Jordan Center.

A zoomed-in shot of the Bryce Jordan Center (left with the white, oval roof) and Beaver Stadium, the second-largest football stadium in the U.S., only behind Michigan Stadium.
If you're not aware, University Park is enormous. As a student, I walked the perimeter of the campus dozens of times. On average, it took me about an hour to walk around the whole thing. I'm also 6-foot-2 and have a larger stride than most people, so for others, it could take longer. Regardless, the Mike Lynch Overlook gives you the only aerial view of University Park that doesn't require aircraft.

The first time I saw the campus from this overlook was the most proud I felt to be a Penn State student. Seeing the massive sports facilities, academic buildings and dorms in "Happy Valley" (home to about 46,000 undergraduate students) all in one scene made me appreciate the opportunity I had to attend such a gorgeous and acclaimed university. The massive student loan debt I acquired has jaded my perspective a bit, but a few tens of thousands of dollars seem unimportant when you're nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and every building, person and issue feels so micro in scale.

Speaking of elevation, let's go back to what I said about the Mike Lynch Overlook being the "hardest" one to reach.

The overlook is the first one you reach if you complete the trail counterclockwise, so you would think that, because of the short distance, the walk there should require minimal effort. It's the exact opposite scenario, however. The hike up Mount Nittany starts with a steep climb. The distance between the beginning of the trail at the parking lot to the Mike Lynch Overlook is only 0.7 miles, but the elevation changes 600 vertical feet in that span.

For how often I walk and hike, I always lose my breath at the beginning of the Mount Nittany trail circuit. You should expect to be walking uphill for the first 15-20 minutes of your hike in this portion. That might not sound like a long time, but it's enough to make some people quit the Mount Nittany hike once they reach the Mike Lynch Overlook. The terrain makes the ascent tougher. At times, the trail here is muddy and covered in water, making it slick. It's rocky and also overrun by large roots in some spots, so you need to be observant to avoid tripping and injuring yourself.

Getting to the Mike Lynch Overlook can be a pain, but the view makes the heavy breathing, sweating and exhaustion worth hiking those 600 vertical feet. After this point, the trails are either flat or experience minor changes in elevation, but nothing to the extent of that first climb. The rest of the overlooks are much easier to reach.

Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook
(Elevation: 1,840 feet)

 


The Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook appears much more rural compared to the bustling scene of the University Park campus as seen from the Mike Lynch Overlook. The former provides a glimpse of Boalsburg, a village with a population of about 3,700, according to the 2010 census.

Most people outside of central Pennsylvania likely haven't heard of Boalsburg. In fact, many central Pa. residents might not know about Boalsburg, either, because the village is cast in the shadows of State College and Penn State University Park. But if you're intrigued by history, you should stop by Boalsburg sometime.

One historical fun fact about Boalsburg is it claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. That sounds like a joke, but it's not.

According to a website about Boalsburg, Memorial Day began in 1864, when three women placed flowers at the graves of two Civil War servicemen in the village's local cemetery. The women agreed they should return to the cemetery on the same day next year to lay flowers at the resting places of all the Civil War servicemen buried there, the website states. Word got out, and the following year, most of the village showed up to join the women in honoring the fallen.

It's a sweet story, but according to other historical websites, dozens of other towns in the United States claim to have started Memorial Day, as well. The federal government declared Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, despite the fact that Waterloo began celebrating the day in May 1866 -- nearly two years after Boalsburg. You can choose who to believe, but Boalsburg still hosts a festival on Memorial Day each year that draws in nearly 25,000 people, according to the village website. That's a decent crowd considering it is almost seven times the normal population of Boalsburg.

Boalsburg also houses the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which includes displays, artifacts and information from numerous wars. The grounds of the museum feature tanks, military vehicles and battleship guns. I went to the museum in 2012 as a member of the Penn State History Roundtable club, and we had a jolly old time.

Photo courtesy of Ian Weissman / You can tell we were the cool kids in college.
On an unrelated note, do you know what Boalsburg, Christopher Columbus and Jesus Christ have in common? They're all included in the history of the Boal Mansion. Honestly, Boalsburg is so jam-packed with history and lore that it's starting to become one of my favorite places to write about. I promise to get back to Mount Nittany in a second, but let me discuss what I just mentioned.

The Boal Mansion Museum is the original home of the Boal family. The Boals would become quite influential in the area. David Boal is credited as the founder of the village and the mansion, according to the museum website. His son, George, ended up becoming one of the founders of Farmers High School in 1852, which later evolved into Penn State University. Theodore Davis Boal, who belonged to the fourth generation of the family, studied abroad in Europe and wound up marrying Mathilde de Lagarde, a French-Spanish aristocrat who was a descendant of famed explorer Christopher Columbus, according to the museum website.

Mathilde inherited a charming gift from her Aunt Victoria Columbus: the Columbus Chapel. According to the museum website, this chapel "is the most important Columbus collection on the North American continent." The chapel was part of Columbus Castle located in Asturias, Spain, and among its contents were an admiral's desk that belonged to Christopher Columbus, European oil paintings and statues originating between the 14th and 17th centuries, and two pieces of the "True Cross" gifted to the Columbus family in 1817 by the Bishop of Leon in Spain, according to the website. Theodore Davis Boal brought the Columbus Chapel to the United States and housed it in the Boal Mansion.

Yep, a chapel containing two alleged parts of the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on wound up in a house in central Pennsylvania. And yet, Boalsburg still fails to show up on most people's radars. Unfortunately, I haven't visited the Boal Mansion Museum to confirm if those pieces of the True Cross are still located there, but the mansion and the Columbus Chapel are available for viewing. I plan to make a trip there soon.

That was one heck of a digression from what I was talking about, but let's get back to Mount Nittany. Now that you know more about the history of Boalsburg, you might have a better appreciation for the Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook.

As far as Mount Nittany Middle School is concerned, I have little to share about it other than it's part of the State College Area School District. I know that the school district is well-acclaimed academically, and the middle school has a stupendous view of Mount Nittany, so it sounds like a fine school to me.

That's an underwhelming amount of information compared to what I just said about Boalsburg, but if I didn't write about Boalsburg, all I had to say about this overlook was "you can see a village and a school." It's better than nothing.

Little Flat Overlook / Penns Valley Overlook
(Elevations: 1,840 feet / 1,920 feet)

 

Little Flat Overlook

Penns Valley Overlook
Little Flat and Penns Valley are two separate overlooks, but I lumped them together for a reason: They're almost identical in appearance. The differences are in the names. Little Flat Overlook shows a bit more of Tussey Mountain and the mountains surrounding it (including the Little Flat area), while the Penns Valley Overlook gives you a better view of the region between Mount Nittany and Tussey Mountain.

Just because these overlooks resemble each other, that doesn't mean they're not worth seeing. Both overlooks are gorgeous; they provide views of fields, small communities and the rolling hilltops in Rothrock State Forest. One neat feature in late autumn is when Tussey Mountain ski resort begins producing artificial snow for the slopes. You'll fail to find a snowflake on Mount Nittany or in the valley below, but just look to the southeast, and you'll see bright, slim bands of white cascading down the opposing mountain.

The Tussey Mountain ski resort began producing artificial snow during my one hike on Mount Nittany in the late fall. Other than a dusting on the hills behind the resort, snow was nonexistent anywhere in the valley.
It's amusing to witness how the overlooks change with the seasons. The spring and summer include waves of lush green trees on the hillsides; the fall presents a color show with the red, orange and golden foliage; and the winter kills everything off, but the lack of plant life results in the best views of the mountains and valley.

The Little Flat and Penns Valley overlooks are similar, but they're not boring by any means.

Tom Smyth Overlook (Elevation: 1,920 feet)

 


The Tom Smyth Overlook showcases miles of fields and mountains to the north and northwest between Bellefonte and Milesburg. Northeast of the overlook is the small town of Pleasant Gap: population about 2,900, according to the 2010 census. Unlike Boalsburg, I couldn't find much about Pleasant Gap other than it's a quaint valley town resting not far from the hustle and bustle of State College. Apparently, the founders of the town didn't marry into Ferdinand Magellan's family or create Veterans Day or anything else peculiar.

The overlook got its name from Tom Smyth, a longtime volunteer with the Mount Nittany Conservancy. The group appreciated Smyth's conservation efforts so much that it honored him with the "2011 Friend of the Mountain" award, according to the MNC website. One of his instrumental efforts was helping to fend off a gypsy moth outbreak in 2008-09. If you're not familiar with gypsy moths, you should know that they cause mass defoliation by consuming tons of leaves. Several years of defoliation can result in the deaths of trees and large sections of forest. The trees and their leaves are still standing on Mount Nittany today, so Smyth and the conservancy must have done something right to fight off the moths.

Smyth is listed as a director emeritus on the conservancy website, which denotes "nine or more years of volunteer board service." In 2011, the conservancy named the overlook after him, and a memorial rock and plaque were placed at the overlook in Smyth's honor. You can see this same stone today.

The Tom Smyth Overlook memorial rock.

Nittany Mall Overlook (Elevation: 2,020 feet)

 


The Nittany Mall is the long, tan building in the center of the shot.
The Nittany Mall Overlook gives hikers an overhead look of the shopping area just outside University Park between Houserville and Pleasant Gap. This includes, obviously, Nittany Mall, which I shouldn't have to go into much detail about. It's a standard mall, though a bit small compared to the Logan Valley Mall near Altoona.

Around the Nittany Mall are several restaurants and other stores. That's about all there is to say concerning the Nittany Mall Overlook. It's a cool view, though it's the least natural out of all the overlooks. If you need to plan a shopping spree, you can use this as a vantage point, I guess. Depending on which trail you take from here, this is either the last or second-to-last overlook you will see on Mount Nittany before returning to the parking lot.

Northwest Overlook (Elevation: 2,040 feet)

 


The Northwest Overlook is the final view on the tour of Mount Nittany. You might notice there's a lot more foliage in this shot compared to the other ones I used in this post. That's because I didn't visit this overlook during my first hike on Mount Nittany. In fact, I walked the mountain a few times without reaching the Northwest Overlook, so this photo was captured during a summer trip compared to the other ones that were taken during a late-autumn hike.

The reason I skipped this overlook several times was because it's kind of out of the way compared to the rest of them. The Northwest Overlook is on the "peak" of Mount Nittany. Out of all the overlooks, Northwest is the highest in elevation at 2,040 feet above sea level. I wanted to visit Northwest to say that I was at the highest point on Mount Nittany. It sounds impressive at first until you realize the Nittany Mall Overlook's elevation is 2,020 feet, which means there's only a difference of 20 vertical feet between the two. That's why I didn't rush to see the Northwest Overlook the first few times I hiked the mountain.

To reach it, you have to walk a trail that follows the ridge of the mountain, which cuts through the middle of the trail system. It ends up taking you back to the area by the Mike Lynch Overlook, and to reach the bottom of the mountain, you would have to descend the steep trail that you climbed in the beginning. From the Nittany Mall Overlook, that's about a 1.5-mile trip. On the other hand, there's another trail that descends the mountain at a much-less steep decline from the Nittany Mall Overlook that's also more direct, and it's only 1 mile in distance. What I'm saying is the Northwest Overlook is kind of an inconvenience.

I do regret not seeing it sooner, though. Because of the elevation, the view from the overlook is picturesque with miles of valleys and mountains to gander at. I wish I had stopped by the Northwest Overlook in fall or winter, however, because the trees do obscure the view a bit. And although it's out of the way, the trail to reach the overlook is quite level and easy to walk. Upon reaching the Northwest Overlook, I felt a sense of pride when I could officially say that I saw every overlook and hiked to the highest accessible point of Mount Nittany.

That concludes the tour of the overlooks. I might have went overboard with summarizing each one, but it's something I wanted to do because when I looked online, I failed to find a source that described every view. Not everyone is going to visit all seven overlooks, and that's fine. But some people might want to see what they're missing out on, and it may persuade someone who wasn't going to hike to all seven overlooks to make an attempt. If you don't visit Mount Nittany, you can at least say you took a virtual tour of it from your couch or desk.

The trails

 


The trail system on Mount Nittany is simple for the most part, especially if you're carrying the map shown above. The Mount Nittany Conservancy is good about having maps in stock at the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, though they do run out on occasion. If you want to be prepared in case the latter happens, you can download the official map and brochure online. To download a PDF version of the Mount Nittany trail map and brochure, click here.

Likewise, the conservancy has signs on the trails, including ones with the numerical stations, so as long as you can count from one to 11, you should survive. All you need to remember is Station 1, which is close to the parking lot.

There are two main trails on the mountain: the Blue Trail and the White Trail. Trail blazes on the trees help keep you on course, which are either blue, white, or blue/white in sections where the two trails overlap.

If God isn't a Penn State fan, then why do the trees on Mount Nittany bleed blue and white?
Deciding which trail you want to take depends on how far you wish to walk and what you hope to see along the way. The Blue and White trails both loop around the mountain, but one is much shorter than the other. The White Trail Loop is the shorter of the two at 3.7 miles, while the Blue Trail Loop is 4.8 miles.

The disadvantage of the White Trail Loop is if you hike it, you will bypass all but the Mike Lynch and Northwest overlooks. Granted, Mike Lynch is the most scenic of the seven overlooks, so if you're content with seeing only the Penn State campus and the view from Northwest, then the White Loop might suit you.

The Blue Trail Loop will take you to every overlook except Northwest, so it is the more scenic of the two loops. From my experience, I recommend the Blue Trail Loop because of the overlooks, in addition to the fact that it isn't all that strenuous. The most-difficult portion of the hike is the initial climb from the parking lot. If you plan to visit the Mike Lynch Overlook first, you won't be able to avoid this part. The White and Blue trails take the same path to get there, so you're going to feel some exhaustion from the start. You could go in reverse and take the Blue Trail to the Nittany Mall Overlook first, though that means it's going to take you much longer to reach Mike Lynch.

Like I said earlier in this post, once you reach the first overlook, you will have an easy walk from there. The elevation change is minor between the overlooks. The factor to keep in mind is how much time you're willing to spend on the mountain. The Blue Trail Loop takes me about two hours to complete, and that's at a brisk pace. That's not including how much time you spend at each overlook, so now you're looking at anywhere between two-and-a-half and three hours round-trip. I've never done just the White Trail Loop, so I'm unsure of how much time you would save.

My final verdict: If you want the best views and the most-rewarding experience, you should take the Blue Trail Loop. If you are short on time and aren't concerned about seeing every overlook, then you are better suited for the White Trail Loop.

I've mentioned the length and the elevation of the trails but haven't touched upon their physical conditions. Like any other path in the woods, the Blue and White trails are subject to change. The first climb from the parking lot to the Mike Lynch Overlook is tough because of the significant change in elevation, but that's not the only reason why it's challenging. This portion of the trail is rocky.

Add moss and snow, and you get a natural (and deadly) slip-and-slide.
There are loose rocks as well as ones embedded in the ground that stick out enough to be a nuisance. You should exercise caution on any trail you hike, but rocks pose a risk because of the possibility of tripping or twisting an ankle. And if you've ever fallen onto a rock, you know it's not a pleasant experience. If you can navigate around the rocks, then do so, but if they're unavoidable, check to make sure they are firmly in place before putting your full weight on them. You don't want to find out that a rock was loose when you've already started to fall. There are also many roots that run across this portion of the trail. Take everything I just said about rocks and apply that logic to roots.

In addition, because this part of the trail is on a slope, it is often covered in runoff water. Moist rocks and roots are even more dangerous than dry ones. The trails on Mount Nittany are all dirt paths, so you can count on there being mud during wet seasons like spring. Be mindful of damp leaves in the fall and snow in the wintertime, as well.

If you decide to go in reverse and take the Blue Trail toward the Nittany Mall Overlook, you should know that all these same conditions apply. The one exception is this part of the Blue Trail is rockier than the White Trail to the Mike Lynch Overlook. In some parts, there are more rocks than trail.

Where did the trail go?
Once you get past the grind of the climb (regardless of which way you go up), you will have a much more comfortable walk ahead of you. You will still come across occasional rocks and roots -- this is the outdoors, after all -- but the Blue and White trails are much smoother at the top of the mountain. Unlike the first climb, these trails tend to be much drier throughout the year, and if there is mud, you can usually just walk around it with no problem.

The trails are well-maintained in the sense that there isn't much grass or overgrown weeds on them. This is great because high grass means increased exposure to ticks. I'm sure you've heard of ticks before, but Pennsylvania is facing an infestation of them. An article in Philadelphia Magazine stated that the deer tick can now be found in all 67 counties in the state. A tick bite can transmit Lyme disease, which, if ignored, can result in severe neurological and cognitive damage. Lyme disease has gotten so bad in Pennsylvania that the commonwealth was the leader in the nation for confirmed Lyme disease cases in 2016, according to Philadelphia Magazine. Ticks love high grass, so I find myself enjoying dirt trails more now than ever before. Mount Nittany's trails are mostly free of high grass, and they're wide enough where you won't have to resort to walking through brush to access certain areas.

Overall, the trails on Mount Nittany are some of the best I've seen anywhere, and they're suitable for hikers of any experience level.

Sense of pride

 

The Penn State Nittany Lion logo on Beaver Stadium
The first time I hiked Mount Nittany was during my junior year as a Penn State student. I knew I wanted to make the hike the second I found out that Mount Nittany had trails. I guess it was one of my "bucket list items," but I would have been content with checking off Mount Nittany and nothing else. Hiking this mountain was something I needed to do.

I know Mount Nittany is a "hill" compared to mountains in the Rockies or the Himalayas or wherever, but for me, elevation doesn't matter much as long as the mountain gives me spectacular views and a challenge. If I feel a sense of pride after completing it, I'm content.

I've hiked several mountains in Pennsylvania, and Mount Nittany is one of the best in the state, in my opinion. It has more scenic overlooks than most of them. It features some of the most-accessible trails I've walked on. It holds a special place in so many people's hearts, including my own.

The reason Mount Nittany remains gorgeous today is because it attracted groups of people who felt it was something so unique that it deserved preservation. According to the Mount Nittany Conservancy, the effort to maintain the mountain started in 1945 when the Lion's Paw Alumni Association saved 525 acres of the mountain from lumbering. Attempts by the lumber industry to get more trees continued, so the association formed the Mount Nittany Conservancy in 1981 to acquire more land. The MNC has been able to gain 300 more acres of land through purchases and donations since then.

The conservancy manages the acreage owned by both the MNC and the Lion's Paw Alumni Association, according to the MNC. Both organizations help to maintain the trails and overlooks, perform cleanups and spray for gypsy moths, according to the MNC.

The Mount Nittany Conservancy and the Lion's Paw Alumni Association address issues on Mount Nittany such as erosion at the Mike Lynch Overlook.
This is what the erosion looked like at the Mike Lynch Overlook a few years ago.
Log barriers were constructed to address eroding portions of the Mike Lynch Overlook.
Without the LPAA and the MNC, Mount Nittany might have turned into a lumber graveyard. It likely would no longer be accessible to hikers, either. And what the MNC considers "a symbol of our pride" could have become yet another example of nature being depleted for the sake of cash.

So why is there so much pride for this small mountain outside of a major college town?

The most likely answer is it's one of the oldest landmarks and the first "Nittany" in the area. Penn State and the State College area have multiple "Nittany" symbols: the university's Nittany Lion logo; the Nittany Lion football team; the Nittany Lion mascot; the Nittany Lion statue; the Nittany Mall; the Nittany Lion Inn and Mount Nittany Medical Center, to name a few. All of those other "Nittanys" haven't been around nearly as long as Mount Nittany, though. That mountain has been in existence for millions of years -- long before the university, the mall, the inn and the hospital were even a thought -- and it will be around for many years after all those places are no longer standing.

Mount Nittany is the first "Nittany" symbol. The origin of the word "Nittany" is a bit murky, but according to Penn State, it likely came from a Native American term meaning "single mountain." The first settlers in the area in the 1700s used the phrase -- or a variation of it -- to refer to the nearby mountain as "Nittany Mountain," according to PSU.

"Nittany" would later become synonymous with just about everything at Penn State, but Mount Nittany remains "the" original symbol of pride in the community. And as long as groups are willing to continue preservation efforts on Mount Nittany, it will remain a "symbol of our pride" for a long time.

I hope my explanation on the mountain's pride did it justice, but I'll end this post with the words of someone who was much more familiar with Mount Nittany than I was: Mike Lynch. You've seen his name dozens of times already because the mountain's most-popular overlook is named after him.

Lynch was a native of Somerset County, a Penn State alumnus and eventually a university employee. According to the conservancy, Lynch used to hike Mount Nittany before there was a formal organization that maintained it. He helped with conserving the mountain by conducting cleanups and even going as far as having a group bring "hundreds" of saplings up the mountain and planting them each year to help more trees grow in an area that was a shale pit at the time, according to the MNC.

Lynch adored Mount Nittany so much that he wrote a poem about it, which I found on the conservancy website. Here's Mr. Lynch's words describing what Mount Nittany meant to him.

Our Mountain
by Mike Lynch
Across the silent valley stands our Mountain old and strong,
Part of our college heritage in story and in song.
Through all the natural seasons, we watch her change her face,
Shedding the white of winter to green with gentle grace.
In the heat of the summer, she grows new leaves and wood,
In the golden glow of autumn, her beauty is understood.
What is it about this Mountain, with rugged rocks and rills,
That gives we Penn Staters a thousand prideful thrills.
It’s a sense of belonging to a school that’s part of us,
In the annals of our lives, we mark it as a plus.
Today, we pledge our loyalty to our Mountain and Old State,
By doing this, we join our founders, strong and great.

Nov 16, 2017

Shawnee State Park

Cassidy and I walk the Lake Shore Trail around Shawnee Lake in Shawnee State Park in Bedford County.
I grew up near several lakes, creeks and rivers in and around my hometown of Mountain Top. I spent many years fishing for trout, blue gill, bass and crappie in the Little Wapwallopen and Nescopeck creeks and Blytheburn and Lily lakes. I learned how to paddle canoes on Blytheburn. In recent years, I've gone kayaking on the Ice Lakes, Lily Lake and the Susquehanna River. My family went swimming at Sand Spring Lake in Hickory Run State Park just about every summer during my childhood. I love the serenity I experience while being on the water, but I also revel in the symphony of birds chirping, frogs croaking, leaves rustling and the water rippling around me.

About two years ago, my then-girlfriend (now wife) Cassidy was working for a newspaper and would often talk about her trips to Shawnee State Park for assignments. I had heard about the park before but never visited it. Shawnee is about 40 minutes southwest of Altoona/Hollidaysburg. That's not a far drive considering I travel the same distance to hike trails in Huntingdon County; those destinations can take anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour to reach.

Cassidy told me Shawnee State Park features a gorgeous lake that we could walk around. She said "lake," and that was all the persuasion I needed.

The first thing I noticed on my inaugural trip to Shawnee State Park was how big the lake is. Shawnee Lake comes in at 451 acres in size, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In comparison, Canoe Lake in Canoe Creek State Park (my go-to park) is only 155 acres, meaning Shawnee Lake is nearly three times larger. Shawnee still doesn't match up to huge lakes such as Raystown (nearly 8,300 acres) or Erie (it's one of the Great Lakes; you get the picture), but it's a decent size for a body of water in a state park.

When I saw Shawnee Lake, I thought about how great it would be to kayak and fish on it. While I haven't fished the lake yet, I have kayaked with Cassidy there, and it was one of the most fun times we've had together on the water. The lake is calm, so Cassidy and I were able to paddle in separate kayaks and still keep up with each other.

Cassidy and I kayaking on Shawnee Lake.
Shawnee State Park rents out watercraft including kayaks, canoes and paddleboats for those who cannot bring their own. That's what Cassidy and I wound up doing when we went kayaking. The rentals are charged by the hour, so you can do a quick trip or a daylong excursion on the water if you have the money.

Some days, however, when the temperature is high, I'd rather be in the water instead of on top of it.

Shawnee Lake features a sand beach with a facility that includes changing rooms, sinks, mirrors and working toilets inside stalls. There are also vending machines that sell water, soda and a variety of snacks. The beach is wide, so visitors can spread out and enjoy basking in the sun or taking a dip in the lake without being on top of one another. A grassy area is nearby for those who don't like getting sand everywhere.

The beach is much wider than this. I'm just poor and don't own a wide-angle lens.
In the midst of summer, the lake retains a substantial amount of heat, so it's quite warm -- warmer than the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, for that matter. The floor of the lake in the swimming area is a mix of mostly sand and some mud, so it doesn't feel slimy. While in the water, you can gaze at the trees and hills surrounding the lake. There's a relaxing atmosphere surrounding the lake, even in the peak of summer when the park is crowded. It provides a quaint retreat from the city. The beach is open for swimming from 8 a.m. to sunset, according to DCNR, usually between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Not everyone is as intrigued by water as I am, though. Shawnee State Park has other options for landlubbers, too.

Cassidy and I like going on walks together. She told me about a trail at Shawnee that circles the lake, so of course, I wanted to try it.

This is the Lake Shore Trail -- a 3.4-mile-long walking and cycling path that encompasses a large portion of Shawnee Lake -- and it's now one of my favorite short-distance trails anywhere. It's the park's second-longest trail, but it's the most beautiful. The Lake Shore Trail takes walkers and bike riders around the tree-covered "coast" of the lake, across the dam that maintains the water levels, and by the sand beach I mentioned earlier. The trail is well maintained and lacks drastic changes in elevation, so it's accommodating to anyone whom favors taking a pleasant stroll around the lake and park. At a moderate pace, the Lake Shore Trail can be completed in about an hour.

The Lake Shore Trail is shaded in most spots.
The Lake Shore Trail passes over the dam for Shawnee Lake.
The Lake Shore Trail stays close to the water, offering wonderful views of Shawnee Lake.
Walker and hikers are not limited to the Lake Shore Trail, though. Including the LST, Shawnee State Park contains 16 miles of hiking trails, according to DCNR.

The longest footpath is the Forbes Trail coming in at 3.8 miles. If that sounds familiar, it's because the trail takes its name after Forbes Road, the route that British Gen. John Forbes took during his campaign to take over Fort Duquesne from the French in present-day Pittsburgh. According to DCNR, Forbes and some other guy in the British army named George Washington camped within the boundaries of present-day Shawnee State Park during the Forbes Road expedition in 1758. The Forbes Trail in the park follows some of Forbes and Washington's route, according to DCNR. It's kind of exhilarating to say you walked in the footsteps of the eventual first president of the United State.

Shawnee State Park offers several other outdoor activities, including a nine-hole disc golfing course; ice skating, sledding and snowmobiling during the winter (in certain locations, obviously); and fishing, with potential prizes including smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, muskellunge, pickerel, catfish, crappie, yellow perch, bluegill, sunfish, sucker, bullhead and carp, according to DCNR.

Maybe all these activities sound like they take a lot of effort, but you just want to relax and do nothing for a while. Shawnee State Park includes numerous pavilions and picnic tables to have a charming lunch by the lake. For a long-term stay at the park, visitors can camp at one of the 290 camping sites. The sites have various accommodations including camping, cottages and yurts, according to DCNR.

By now, you should have found something you can do at Shawnee State Park. My recommendation is going on a summer day when you can walk the Lake Shore Trail, kayak for an hour or so to take in the scenery (maybe fish while you're out there) and then head for a swim at the beach to cool off and relax. It will feel like a mini-vacation to the shore -- all within central Pennsylvania.

Oct 29, 2017

The Yuengling brewery

The Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory of beers.
Whenever I write blog posts, I conduct a bit of research beforehand. My primary sources tend to be websites, while secondary references might include historical plaques at the location or books on the subject. On average, I spend about one to two days reading up on the topic.

For this post, I've compiled "a lot" of "research" over the span of several years. Depending on who you ask, that could be dedication or a problem.

That's because I'm talking about drinking Yuengling -- Pennsylvania's most renowned beer.

Its reputation is so large that, when some Pennsylvanians say they want a "lager," the bartender knows to pour Yuengling. The popularity of "America's Oldest Brewery" doesn't stop at the state border, though. Yuengling's distribution has gained so much ground over the years that the brewery touted the highest beer sales volume of any craft brewery in the United States in 2016, according to the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group. Even more impressive is the fact that Yuengling came in fourth in beer sales volume among every major beer company in America that same year, being bested only by Anheuser-Busch Inc. (first), MillerCoors (second) and Pabst Brewing Co. (third).

To be fair, how do you expect Yuengling to compete with a beer that was named "America's Best Beer" 124 years ago?
That second ranking is impressive when you consider how Yuengling is an independent brewery and Anheuser-Busch owns more than 50 beer brands, some of the more notable ones including Bud Light, Budweiser, Busch, Goose Island, Hoegaarden, Land Shark, Michelob Ultra, Natural Light (Natty Light), O'Doul's, Rolling Rock, Shock Top and Stella Artois. The full list is below.

Credit: www.anheuser-busch.com
I think part of the reason beer lovers show so much admiration for Yuengling is not just because of its quality, but because it has remained independent for more than 185 years and has fended off challenges including the Great Depression and Prohibition. There is a threat that continues to loom over independent breweries such as Yuengling, however.

One of the biggest fears among craft brewing organizations and beer aficionados is large-scale companies buying out smaller brands in an attempt to consolidate the industry. An example in our state was Rolling Rock, a beer that was produced in Latrobe from 1939 until 2006, when Anheuser-Busch bought the brand for $82 million, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. Rolling Rock's production left Latrobe and went to New Jersey instead.

A beer brand being bought out after almost seven decades of local production alarms craft brewers who favor a competitive market with mostly independent breweries. Rolling Rock is just one of several beer brands that have been sucked into larger beer companies.

To be fair, the owners of these independent breweries made the choice to sell their brand. It's not like Anheuser-Busch is using eminent domain to seize brands by force. But the thought of a longtime family-owned company such as Yuengling being owned by anyone other than the family would be upsetting to many who favor businesses with roots in their communities.

Judging by Yuengling's commitment to keeping the company in the family -- in addition to its recent business decisions over the past few years -- I think it will remain an independent brewery for some time.

Cheers to that.
The Yuengling family's dedication to beer goes back to the brewery's founding in 1829 by David G. Yuengling. At the time, David Yuengling called the facility "Eagle Brewery," which was located on Centre Street in Pottsville, according to the Yuengling website. The name "Eagle Brewery" explains why Yuengling's iconic logo features a bald eagle standing on a beer barrel.

It didn't take long for Yuengling to experience his first setback. A fire destroyed Eagle Brewery about two years after it started operations. Instead of accepting defeat, David Yuengling had a new brewery built on Mahantongo Street in 1831. This facility is the iconic burgundy building that remains in Pottsville today.

The brewery would stay in the Yuengling family when David Yuengling's son, Frederick, joined his father as a business partner. The brewery's name changed to D.G. Yuengling & Son in 1873 when the partnership was formed, according to the Yuengling website. The name has stuck since then.

Frederick Yuengling would help increase the brewery's production by adding a bottling line to the plant in 1895. Shortly after, Frederick died in 1899 at the rather-young age of 51. He had only one son, Frank, who took over the brewery's operations, the website says.

I'm unsure of what the brewery's fate would have been if Frank decided against taking the reins, since both David and Frederick were deceased by that point. Regardless, Frank must have embraced the beer industry because he would go on to lead the Yuengling brewery for more than six decades. In that time, Frank would experience significant milestones and challenges.

Frank Yuengling faced the largest threat to alcohol during his leadership at the brewery: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited alcohol across the United States, was ratified in 1919. This should have been a death sentence for the Yuengling brewery, but it decided to improvise in the meantime.

According to the Yuengling website, the brewery began producing "near beer products." The website doesn't really specify what these "near beer products" were, but after looking around online, I found out that some contemporary "non-alcoholic beers" contain about 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, which means it has a similar taste to normal beer but without the fun. In comparison, Yuengling's Traditional Lager today is 4.4 percent ABV. To put that into perspective, you would need to drink about nine Yuengling "near beers" to experience the same buzz of just one Yuengling Traditional Amber Lager. Seems like more effort than it's worth. Isn't the point of beer to relax and NOT work?

Yuengling whipped up another idea to keep business afloat during Prohibition: ice cream. In 1920, Yuengling constructed a dairy across the street from the brewery as a way to bring in revenue while beer was illegal, according to the Yuengling website. This dairy still stands today, and visitors who take a tour of the brewery not only get to see the inside of the ice cream facility, but they get to sample Yuengling beers at a bar there. How many ice cream places do you know of where you can get a buzz?

Joking aside, the dairy no longer produces ice cream. However, another member of the Yuengling family has brought the ice cream back, and it is available for purchase. You can find that information here.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ... lager!
The Yuengling brewery did manage to mark a major milestone during Prohibition. In 1929, Yuengling celebrated 100 years as a brewery, though it could legally only do so with its near beer products. That must have been one bittersweet office party.

It would take another four years before Yuengling could truly celebrate, but in 1933, Prohibition ended, and the brewery recognized the event by producing "Winner Beer." Yuengling sent a truckload of the special beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a token of the brewery's gratitude, according to its website.

The Yuengling brewery survived Prohibition, and Frank Yuengling would go on to lead the company until his death in 1963 at the age of 86. During his lifetime, Frank managed the brewery as president and chairman of the board for 64 years, according to the Yuengling website. Upon his death, Frank's sons, Richard L. and F. Dohrman Yuengling, took over the brewery's management.

In the coming years, the brewery achieved more recognition. In 1976, Yuengling was put on national and state registers as "America's Oldest Brewery," according to its website. Three years later, the brewery celebrated 150 years of business.

The brewery continued to stay in family hands when Richard L. "Dick" Yuengling Jr. bought the business from his father and became president in 1985, according to the company website. Dick Yuengling remains the brewery's figurehead today.

Since assuming control of Yuengling, Dick has increased the brewery's reputation and operations more than ever before. In 1987, he reintroduced "Yuengling Traditional Amber Lager," which is now the company's "flagship brand," according to its website.

I assure you, I have this only for journalistic purposes.
At one point, Yuengling grew so massive in popularity that it had trouble keeping up with demand. According to the company's website, Yuengling withdrew from markets outside the local area in 1996. About two years later, Dick Yuengling resolved the supply-and-demand issue by announcing plans to build a second brewery in nearby Mill Creek, which is about 3 miles from the original site.

Yuengling also purchased the former Stroh's brewery in Tampa, Florida, in 1999 to expand production. Yuengling began making beer in Florida that summer, according to the company website. The Mill Creek brewery began production two years later. Yuengling surpassed 2 million barrels of beer in 2009, according to the brewery's website. Three years later, Yuengling became the largest U.S.-owned brewery, and two years after that, it celebrated 185 years in business, the website says.

The Yuengling family's dedication to its brewery and brand should be evident by this point in my post. Based off its expansion and beer sales volume numbers, the Yuengling brewery looks like it will continue to be a mainstay in family hands in Pennsylvania for some time. 

It's worth mentioning that anyone who appreciates beer and history ...

This goober.
... can witness firsthand how Yuengling beer is produced from start to finish. The Yuengling brewery is open for public tours for people of all ages. The tours are free, and they end with free beer samplings. Beats any museum tour you've ever taken, right?

All you have to do is go to the Yuengling brewery's gift shop inside the old dairy building and reserve your spot on the tour. You can find tour dates and times by clicking this link: https://www.yuengling.com/visit-us/#tab_pottsville-pa

My brother, Cody, convinced me to take one of these tours with him a few months back. I might have been persuaded by the prospect of free beer.

The tour guide starts by taking you across the street into the brewery's basement, where the beer was stored before the advent of refrigeration. The basement includes old wooden barrels and metal kegs used to store beer over the years.

Old metal kegs
Old wooden kegs.
The tour guide then takes you through tunnels in the basement, which stored more beer. Workers dug out these tunnels by hand over the span of 10 years, according to the tour guide. I hope that, if the workers were awarded pension afterward, it included a lifetime supply of Yuengling. I think they deserved it.

In certain areas, you can see layers of brick around some of the tunnel entrances. According to our tour guide, the government made sure to block off the entrances to these tunnels during Prohibition so Yuengling couldn't attempt to bootleg.

All cave tours would be much more exciting if they included beer.
After touring the basement, visitors get to witness more of the operations within the brewery. This includes the fermentation process and canning/bottling. An interesting tidbit of trivia is that the brewery and the canning/bottling facility share only one conveyor belt, which means bottling and canning must be performed on separate days. Cody and I came on a day when Yuengling was canning, so we got to witness hundreds of cans making their way through the building as they were prepared for shipping. Watching the process is quite therapeutic.


The tour ends in the old dairy, where the guide lets guests sample two of any of the Yuengling beers currently in production. I tried two I never drank before: Yuengling Premium (a light-tasting pilsner) and Lord Chesterfield Ale (for people who are photogenic).

What a stud.
According to Cody, the beer sampling inside the dairy is somewhat new. Back when he toured with our friend Alan, Cody said the samples were served at Yuengling's Rathskeller, a small bar within the brewery that was built in 1936, according to the Yuengling website. Cody admits the rathskeller was much smaller, so tourists were crammed in when trying beers. The dairy provides more open space in comparison. The gift shop is also located right behind the dairy's bar, so patrons can get a buzz and then spend money on Yuengling T-shirts, key chains, mugs and growlers.

I might have been influenced by Yuengling's business model.
The Yuengling tours aren't just for beer drinkers. Because it has been around since 1831, the brewery is just as historical as other Pennsylvania buildings like Penn State University's Old Main or the state's Capitol Building. The brewery predates the Civil War and the invention of the automobile and the airplane. It's a significant part of Pennsylvania's heritage.

It'll be interesting to see if Yuengling will continue to be "America's Oldest Brewery" for another 185 years. I'll raise a glass to that, and I'm sure many other Pennsylvanians would, too.

 *** Much of the information for this post came from the Yuengling brewery's official website. You can learn more about Yuengling and see old photographs of the brewery and the Yuengling family here: https://www.yuengling.com/ ***

Jul 10, 2017

The start of our new journey


On a Sunday in May, I woke up my girlfriend Cassidy about 6:30 a.m. and told her to get ready. About a week earlier, we had planned a trip for this day, but she had no idea where we were going. I did. I intended it to be a surprise.

We got dressed, grabbed two bagels to eat during the drive and left the apartment about 7 a.m. The trip would take about two-and-a-half hours, and I had to work that evening, so it was necessary for us to leave early.

The journey took us up Interstate 99, Route 350, Interstate 80 and Route 36 for about 130 miles. About every 5 miles, Cassidy attempted to guess where I was taking her. I refused to give her any hints because I wanted the destination to remain secret. That didn't stop her from trying, though. Cassidy tends to have a terrible sense of direction, but she could tell we were headed west, so she threw around a few possibilities.

Clarion? (the location of our first date)
Nope.

Pittsburgh? (our favorite city in Pennsylvania)
No.

Lake Erie? (we love the lake and its beaches)
I wished, but not there, either.

The only hint I provided was that it was a location neither of us had visited before. With how vast western Pennsylvania is, that left numerous options for Cassidy to ponder. At times, she browsed Google Maps on her phone and scanned the western portion of the state hoping to debunk the mystery. I got frustrated and told her to stop because I didn't want her to spoil the surprise. She consented and decided to enjoy the ride there in the meantime.

Coming up Route 36 -- which would take us to our final destination -- I realized how gorgeous this part of Pennsylvania is. Looking at maps, the area appears desolate. Only a few small towns dot the landscape, including two villages that decided to name themselves "Alaska" and "Nebraska." I'm not sure if I'll ever get the chance to explore these states in my lifetime, but at least I can say I "passed through both of them" on a road trip.

Your alternative options boil down to that town with the groundhog or the other one where oil was first discovered. Don't get too excited.
Route 36 passes through some of the most natural portions left in Pennsylvania, including Cook Forest State Park and the Allegheny National Forest. Parts of this roadway in this section of the state cut through dense forests with huge, towering trees. Locals have taken advantage of the rural beauty by establishing several campgrounds, deer farms, horseback riding trails, miniature amusement parks, resorts and cabins. Cassidy and I were impressed by all the recreation options in such a large swath of remote Pennsylvania. If we weren't pressed for time, we might have stopped at one or two of these places and made a short vacation out of it.

After 130 miles, our journey brought us to our destination: Tionesta, a tiny borough of about 460 residents in Forest County. Cassidy had no idea this place existed until we drove into town. I've lived in Pennsylvania all my life and only found out about Tionesta last year.

Like most small Pa. towns, Tionesta has a charming main street with mom-and-pop shops that sell all sorts of trinkets, a few local eateries and a lodge or two. But we weren't here to see any of that. My reason for driving more than two hours on a work day was a small island just outside of town.

We pulled into a parking lot on the island and exited the car. Cassidy seemed a bit confused why we stopped here. I then pointed out a lighthouse. If you look at the map above, you'll notice Tionesta isn't near an ocean; it borders the Allegheny River, and the lighthouse sits on an island in the river. How many lighthouses have you heard of that are located on a river? In addition, how many lighthouses do you know of that are on a river in Pennsylvania? It's an oddity I wanted to witness for a while, but I had another reason to drive two-and-a-half hours just to see it.


I needed to buy some time first. To my fortune, Lighthouse Island -- where the lighthouse is located (duh) -- features a trail about a mile long that follows the perimeter of the land. I suggested to Cassidy that we should walk the path for a bit and check out the surrounding landscape. She agreed.

Lighthouse Island is "technically" in the middle of the Allegheny River, though the island's east bank is separated by a trickle of water about the size of a small creek. In times of extreme drought, I can imagine this strip of water evaporating and converting the island into a peninsula. Regardless, most of the island is surrounded by the Allegheny, in addition to numerous hills that rise above the river's banks. Cassidy and I have seen hills and rivers plenty of times in central Pennsylvania, but something about this area seemed enchanting. As we walked the path, we stopped a few times to take in the beauty of the scenery.




We started to near the end of the trail on the island's west bank. While strolling around, I noticed two women walking the trail on the opposite side of the island. I wanted to get a decent picture of Cassidy and I in front of the lighthouse, so I needed to stall her while I waited for the women to meet up with us. I started by trying to explain to Cassidy why I'm intrigued by lighthouses. but I was distracted because I kept checking to see how far away the women were.

I was a bit nervous, so my message came out in unorganized pieces, but this is what I had in mind: Lighthouses are built to withstand some of the harshest elements. They are battered by hurricanes, blizzards, and in some cases, lightning (I found out later that this lighthouse was struck by lightning on Aug. 26, 2003). No matter the weather, however, lighthouses are resilient and shine through the darkness. I told Cassidy how a lighthouse serves as an excellent symbol for a relationship. We help guide each other when life seems dark and overwhelming. Cassidy and I have dated for more than four years, so we've encountered our share of misgivings -- job loss, depression, sickness, etc. But when one of us seems to be lost in a sea of misfortune, the other shines a light through the darkness and provides assurance that hope and safety is not far off.

I wish my speech had gone this smooth, but I'm a better writer than an orator, so just pretend I said something along these lines. It seemed as though I had been talking forever waiting for these women to reach us. I was running out of material to work with, and I could tell Cassidy was getting a bit antsy to leave.

At last, the walkers approached us, and I asked if they could take our picture. Both of them seemed opposed to the idea at first, and that annoyed me, because I didn't have a backup plan. I guaranteed them I wasn't expecting a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo -- just a snapshot of the two of us and the lighthouse in the background. One of the women then agreed to do it, and I thanked her about a dozen times. I framed the shot to make sure it would come out fine. I handed over the camera, explained how to set the focus and take the picture.

I walked back over to Cassidy and prepared for the photo. Then I accomplished what I had planned to do for almost a year: I got down on my right knee, pulled out a ring box and asked Cassidy Sherman to marry me -- in front of the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse.

Thank God she said "yes," otherwise this blog post would have been awkward.
When I considered ways to propose to Cassidy, I had the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse at the top of my list. Maybe it seems cheesy to some people: "You just found a place that shared her last name and proposed there." Somewhat true, yes, but Cassidy and I both share a passion for the beach, ocean and coastal attractions, including lighthouses. I googled "Sherman Lighthouse" for this post and found that this is one of the only lighthouses with "Sherman" in its name in the United States, other than Point Sherman Lighthouse in Alaska. That would have been a bit of a haul for a proposal. Two-and-a-half hours seemed like an eternity.

What's special about the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse is the reason it was constructed. The conceptual design of the lighthouse was by J. Jack Sherman, a nearby resident who has a passion for maritime towers -- so much so that he decided to build his own. Sherman appreciated lighthouses so much that, when his lighthouse was commemorated on Sept. 17, 2006, it featured a display of about 280 replica lighthouses, according to a plaque at the site.

He also wanted his family's legacy to be remembered. This quote is written on a nearby plaque: "The lighthouse was built as a beneficial landmark for the Tionesta community and to serve as a place to preserve the heritage of the Sherman family."

Although it's named after the Sherman family, the lighthouse is also meant to signify the importance of family in all of our lives. Another plaque mounted on a rock near the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse says the following:
"Every family has a story. Each is no more or less significant than another. It is our most sincere wish that your visit here will encourage you to seek out your own family's story and to reflect upon the legacy each of us leaves behind. May your family's blessings be many. -- The Sherman Family."
The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse served as the perfect site for our engagement. On that day, Cassidy and I committed to starting our own family, in addition to uniting the Sherman and Yermal families (God help Cassidy's parents). Cassidy and I have now begun to write our own "family story" that will carry on for generations to come. It will be a story with conflict and tribulations at times, but I'm confident it will have many happy, funny and enduring memories, as well. I look forward to every chapter of it.

I can't guarantee it will be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, though.